Lara Croft hates tombs. I know this because she tells me, point blank, in the opening hours of Crystal Dynamics’ fantastic Tomb Raider reboot. Who can blame her, really? Tombs are claustrophobic, confined spaces with more rotting corpses than your average episode of The Walking Dead and more detritus than a standard half-hour of Home and Away. They aren’t exactly inviting. I can sympathize with Lara – I don’t really like tombs either, and I really don’t like the tombs in Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider succeeds largely because it always makes the player feel vulnerable. It’s not only the island’s insane cult that’s out to get you, but the actual island of Yamatai itself that is plotting your downfall. Yamatai is, for all intents and purposes, a tomb in and of itself – heavy rain and storms provide the impenetrable roof and the high seas act as walls, swallowing you up and pushing you back to shore. Effectively, you’re trapped on the island. It sounds like a bad LOST rewrite, but it instils a constant sense of danger and evokes a certain fear that at any second you could be falling to your death with only a QTE to save your life.
But Yamatai doesn’t feel like a tomb as you play through its various areas. In fact, Tomb Raider gives you the freedom to explore the island at will, so much so that it almost makes you feel as if you aren’t being carefully funnelled down a set path. It’s a magician, shuffling the deck and asking you to pick a card, but always forcing you into the Queen of Spades without you even realising until the trick is over. That’s Tomb Raider’s greatest illusion – it is as linear and guided as Uncharted but it never feels that way when you are out in the open world scaling each rocky cliff-face or zip-lining between shantytown rooftops.
It’s disappointing when you are confronted with your first (entirely optional) tomb. Lara hates tombs and she doesn’t need them. The optional tombs feel like that first lesson after lunch at school; you’ve had all this time out in the playground doing whatever the hell you want and then you’re brought back in to sit through some basic maths questions. They are unnecessarily prolonged, slowing Lara to a crawl as she lights her torch and cautiously plods through each tombs entrance, and the rewards are all-but-inconsequential. Unfortunately, the tombs completely shackle the player and of course, I could just ignore them, but what if just *one* had a worthwhile reward? I didn’t want to miss out.
Tombs seem like an afterthought, like Crystal Dynamics wanted to recreate Lara Croft but were limited by her old career path and years of accumulated lore. It’s like they built this new Lara – a survivor, expert marksman, adept climber and gritty hero – and then realised that she still had that old job to attend to. Maybe a play-tester provided some misplaced feedback: “Well, guys, her new job of gallivanting around Yamatai plucking her bowstring and firing explosive freakin’ arrows at anything that moves sure is fun but, she is a tomb raider right? Where are the tombs?” and the Crystal Dynamics team all suddenly had that moment of realization.
The optional tombs just aren’t done right and they degrade the integrity of the entire premise of Tomb Raider, no? I mean, if you call your game Tomb Raider, you’re gonna want to be building some damn interesting tombs to discover and explore. Instead, they completely remove you from the perpetual chaos that is Yamatai. There are no enemies within the tombs and there is no real danger of death either. There’s no exploration because the tombs are simply a room, 2×2, with a puzzle in the centre and treasure chest at the end. In trying to stay faithful to a franchise, and in spite of all the other changes Crystal Dynamics made to the overarching lore, the tombs are an unnecessary and fruitless sidestep.
Perhaps this was a real chance to get away from that established lore and set up a new world that only borrows, at a basic level, from the old games, ala Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Instead of Tomb Raider, what we actually have now is Survivor: Lara Croft. This Lara shares her image with the old Lara, but her mentality is different. You could argue that is a result of this being a prequel-reboot of sorts, establishing this new character and showing us where Lara is headed but you’d look like a fool. This is clearly not your mother’s Lara Croft. This is Lara through Nolan-goggles, gritty and dark, and without the sass and pomp of the much earlier Tomb Raider’s. In fact, this isn’t Tomb Raider anymore!
So, under any other name would this game have succeeded? If the protagonist was named Tara Roth would this game have been as good as it is? If this was literally called “Survivor” would it have generated the interest it did? Good question, me! I’d have to say yes. It isn’t Lara’s name that makes this game what it is, nor is it the title that made it successful. It’s definitely nothing to do with how attractive Lara is made out to be, or how close the camera can get to her as she slides through crawlspaces. It does away with so much of Lara v1.0 that it hardly resembles the Tomb Raider of old. It’s the exploration, the climbing and searching, the beautiful island that it takes place on and the gunplay that makeCrystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider so good. It isn’t the protagonist and it certainly isn’t the tombs.
The inevitable sequel is going to have a tough time competing with the quality of this game, no doubt, but the first step toward creating something as memorable as this is to remove or completely reimagine the eponymous tombs. Maybe Lara doesn’t hate them as much as she leads on, but she certainly will if they are as uninteresting and bland as those encountered in Tomb Raider.
So what do you think about dropping tombs in Tomb Raider? Think they’re pointless or is it something that is a requirement? Drop down below in the comments and let us know!